Support to culture in Africa, Latin America and Asia is not the preserve of governments. Large private funds with their own cultural policy operate worldwide. Their strategies are less coloured by political considerations and stem from socially responsible entrepreneurship or philanthropic ideals. Part three.

Open Society Institute

August 2007 -

Support for Africa, Latin America and Asia is not confined to governments. There are also a number of substantial private funds with their own cultural policies. Their strategies tend to be influenced less by political considerations and more by notions of corporate social responsibility or philanthropic idealism.

The Open Society Institute is the brainchild of American billionaire and political activist George Soros, who made his fortune in the financial markets and took his first steps as a philanthropist in the 1970s. In those days he funded education for black students in apartheid South Africa and supported dissident movements behind the Iron Curtain. The Open Society Institute, founded in 1993 with offices in New York and Budapest, acts as an institutional base for national Soros Foundations throughout the world. They are autonomous organisations set up to serve as 'watchdogs' and support structures for democracy in more than sixty countries where the philanthropist believes it is under threat – including the United States. Having witnessed the effects of both Nazism and Communism during his youth in Hungary, George Soros drew inspiration from the work of philosopher Karl Popper and his criticism of totalitarian regimes. He is also a prominent opponent of George W. Bush: in a 2003 interview with the Washington Post, Soros said that he would be willing to give up his fortune if that would guarantee the President's fall from power.

Soros believes that art and culture influence a society's standards and values, but claims that that role is not sufficiently acknowledged by governments. An autonomous and innovative arts sector is the dream of the Open Society Institute. To this end, the Soros Foundations in the Caucasus, Central Asia, Turkey and Afghanistan are encouraging mutual cultural and artistic co-operation through a programme of grants operated in collaboration with three Dutch organisations: the European Cultural Foundation, the Humanist Institute for Co-operation with Developing Countries (HIVOS) and Felix Meritis. The foundations also monitor the cultural policies of governments in those regions and are active in increasing the independence of artists and their access to the international art world. The Soros Documentary Fund organises training programmes for up-and-coming filmmakers and screenwriters, as well as supporting the production of documentaries on contemporary human rights issues.

The Soros Foundation once had its own centres for contemporary art in seventeen nations of Central and Eastern Europe. They attempted to foster the development of local the arts sector by holding exhibitions, documenting works of art and providing bursaries. Since the turn of the millennium, those centres have become independent organisations united in the Amsterdam-based International Contemporary Art Network (ICAN). Its aim is to provide an open forum for intercultural exchanges and co-operation in the field of contemporary art.